Russia’s athletics team was dramatically banned from the Olympics last night (Friday) – yet some of the country’s athletes could still line up in Rio -under a neutral flag after the sport’s governing body offered an olive branch to those who can prove they are untainted by their country’s disgraced system.
An unrelenting stream of doping revelations over the past 18 months meant the International Association of Athletics Federations Council was unanimous in its decision to extend Russia’s exile from international athletics competitions.
However, the Council also made the surprise announcement that a “tiny, tiny crack in the door” remained open for Russian athletes to compete under a neutral flag if they can prove they have not been tarnished by the state-sponsored doping regime exposed in the country.
That loophole only applies to athletes living and training outside Russia – a tiny demographic that is understood to consist of barely three or four athletes of Olympic standard. One of those is Yuliya Stepanova, the doper-turned-whistleblower who lifted the lid on the Russian doping regime before fleeing to Germany and now the United States. She received high praise for her role and the IAAF confirmed a new rule that “any individual athlete who has made an extraordinary contribution to the fight against doping in sport” should be eligible to apply to compete under a neutral flag.
Despite Russia’s insistence that it had fulfilled all the criteria asked of it, the IAAF Council offered a damning verdict of attempts to clean up its discredited athletics set-up.
“The deep-seated culture of tolerance – or worse – for doping that got [the Russian athletics federation] suspended in the first place appears not to have changed materially to date,” said Rune Anderson, chairman of the IAAF Taskforce that has been investigating Russia for the past year. “The head coach of the Russian athletics team and many of the athletes on that team appear unwilling to acknowledge the nature and extent of the doping problem in Russian athletics. Certain athletes and coaches appear willing to ignore the doping rules.”
Anderson also stated that there remains no sign of an effective anti-doping infrastructure in Russia and the country’s athletics anti-doping body is “at least 18 to 24 months away” from complying with the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) code.
The IAAF’s verdict, which was made in Vienna, Austria, means that none of the 16 athletes who helped Russia to second place in the London 2012 athletics medal table will be eligible to compete at the Rio Games this summer.
Yelena Isinbayeva, double Olympic and seven-time world pole vault champion, hit out at the decision and confirmed she would take legal action. “This is a violation of human rights,” she said. “I won’t keep -silent. I’ll turn to a human rights court. I’ll prove to the IAAF and Wada that they have made a wrong decision. We are being accused of something we didn’t do. I first of all consider this to be discrimination against Russians.”
Anna Chicherova, defending -Olympic high jump champion, added: “The [Russian] federation has done major work, but it turned out to be too little. This measure is too harsh for those who were never -involved in doping scandals. It’s -unfortunate to be a witness to such fate-changing decisions.”
Russian president Vladimir Putin had earlier rejected the claim that his government had been complicit in any state-sponsored doping regime. “There isn’t and cannot be any support on the government level of violations in sport, especially on the question of doping,” he said, prior to the IAAF announcement. “There cannot be collective responsibility of all athletes. The whole team cannot bear responsibility for one who committed a violation.”
Yesterday’s decision is almost certain to see Russian athletes launch a wave of legal challenges with the Court of Arbitration for Sport in a bid to compete in Rio.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is due to meet on Tuesday to discuss Russia’s continuing exile and could also offer their athletes a route to Rio, although Sebastian Coe, IAAF president, dismissed concerns that they could overrule the decision.
“I will be attending the IOC summit to represent my sport,” he said. “The decision that the Council took today was unanimous and I do make the point that the eligibility criteria for any competing athlete at international level is a matter for the IAAF, which, of course, the IOC would fully recognise.”
Coe also reiterated his denial of allegations made in a BBC Panorama documentary that he lied about his knowledge of the sport’s corruption scandals. The documentary claimed Coe had received an email detailing allegations about Russian marathon runner Liliya Shobukhova, who was asked to pay pounds 360,000 to senior IAAF officials to have her drugs offences covered up.
“I have hundreds of conversations with people in athletics detailing all sorts of issues,” said Coe, who claims he forwarded the email on to the IAAF Ethics Committee without opening the attachment. “There is an ethics board and my standard response has always been to forward whatever you know to the ethics board.”